Say Brighton and cinema and you envisage a baby-faced Richard Attenborough scowling down from his battered bed-sit in Brighton Rock. Or maybe you think of Quadrophenia and a squadron of mod-mounted scooters roaring down the front and into a throng of rockers. On screen, the home of seaside saunters and rabid seagulls has had some star turns. Few, however, can name Brighton’s famous faces from behind the camera – a state a new display hopes to redress.
Experimental Motion, the latest offering from Brighton Museum, showcases the city’s long and vibrant history of cinematic innovation. The whistle-stop exhibition rattles through over a hundred years of local screen pioneers, racing from the advent of British motion pictures through to Brighton-born director and up-and-coming star Ben Wheatley. Filmmakers’ technical wizardry earns particular pride of place. Display cases feature rare antique editing and cinematographic equipment alongside interactive exhibits demonstrating some of cinema’s slipperiest slights of hand. There is also a chance to see recent additions to Brighton’s cannon, with instillations screening the work of local residents Tula Parker, Anna Weatherston and Choi Sai-Ho.
Finding Fanon: Part 2. Larry Achiampong & David Blandy.
It’s a sad reality of cinema that what goes on behind the camera is rarely as interesting as what we see on screen. Special effects, when the production processes are explained, seldom seem that special – particularly in this era of mass-regurgitated CGI. Experimental Motion has its work cut out, then, if it is trying to convince us of the thrills of aperture innovations and editing techniques.
At first glance, the opening exhibit doesn’t raise expectations. A selection of black-and-white fuzz-fests showing women on bicycles and men in baths: this is hardly Avatar 2.0. Beneath the grit and the grain, however, is an intriguing story of British Cinema’s alternative origins. The selected clips feature the work of George Albert Smith, Brighton’s first filmmaker, and one of British cinema’s foremost innovators. Smith was the first British director to combine multiple perspectives cuts in one film. The picture in question, The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), features as Experimental Motion opening.
Academics describe the draw of early movies as “the cinema of attractions”. Early films presented a visual spectacle, much like a magic trick, avoiding the long-winded stories we now expect from the screen. A former showman and hypnotist, Albert Smith understood these pleasures well. The Kiss in the Tunnel to contemporaries was near miraculous: you saw from one perspective, and then suddenly jumped to another. It would have been one of the greatest illusions ever created.
A Kiss in the Tunnel. Image Credit: BFI National Archive.
The “attractions” of George Albert Smith’s films, however, weren’t just in technological sorcery. The Kiss in the Tunnel displays the Victorian equivalent of a bawdy joke. A young couple sneaks a smooch in a train carriage, the darkness of a passing tunnel concealing them from the disapproving eye of the accompanying matron. Another of George Albert Smith’s features, As Seen Through a Telescope, displays similarly racy tastes. An upright gentleman stands testing his new magnifying device with the audience viewing from his perspective. The sight reveals a young lady mounting a bicycle and exposing her bare leg in the process – very lewd for the times. The peeping tom gets his comeuppance: a passerby thumps him with a newspaper. The audience, however, gets off scot-free. Brighton’s early films, it appears, are the forgotten ancestors of the saucy seaside postcards of the 1940s.
It was the southern sun, not it’s scantily clad followers, however, that drew Smith, and his contemporaries Alfred Darling and James Williamson, to Brighton. The light on the south coast was brighter and lasted longer than anywhere else in the country, a vital resource for a film industry yet to invent sets and lighting. Some of Experimental Motion’s modern films utilise the same asset. Tule Parker and Anna Weatherston’s Beach Jam presents a toy car racing down a shoreline, past a row of model traffic, before taking off into the sea. Jeff Keen’s 1964 The Pink Auto uses two screens to roam the sunny streets of Brighton to the grand film scores of 1950s film epics.
The display continues with a similar range of exploratory short films and collectors’ items. At times the assortment can feel a little eclectic and disparate – a few movies from the 1890s, a camera from 1924, art film from the sixties, and computer game graphics from the mid-00s. If you broaden your outlook, however, and go along with Experimental Motion’s offbeat rhythm, you’ll likely discover some fascinating stuff. Each article is one-of-a-kind – particularly George Albert Smith’s features – and places a dot on Brighton’s cinematic timeline.
Experimental Motion runs until 4 June. More information is available on Brighton Museum's website.